In the final decades of his life, Monet embarked on a series of monumental compositions depicting the lush lily ponds in his gardens in Giverny, in northwestern France. At the end of the nineteenth century, the painter had envisioned a circular installation of vast paintings—he called them grandes décorations—that would envelop the viewer in an expanse of water, flora, and sky. This vision materialized in the form of some forty large-scale panels, Water Lilies among them, that Monet produced and continuously reworked from 1914 until his death in 1926.
At this triptych’s center, lilies bloom in a luminous pool of green and blue that is frothed with lavender-tinged reflections of clouds. Thick strokes in darker shades seep into the left panel, while on the right, sky and water are gently swallowed by an expanse of reddish-green vegetation. The dense composition hovers at the threshold of abstraction, its lack of horizon creating an effect of total immersion.
After Monet’s death, twenty-two panels were installed on curved walls in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris: a gift from the artist to the nation of France. The remaining canvases stayed in his studios until the late 1940s, when collectors and MoMA curators began to take an interest in them. In size and style, they were compelling precursors to the large-scale, allover abstraction then prevalent in mid-twentieth-century painting.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
The aim of his large Water Lilies paintings, Monet said, was to supply “the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” While his garden in Giverny, his water-lily pond, and the sky above are the subjects of this monumental triptych, his representation of them can be seen to verge toward abstraction. In the attempt to capture the constantly changing qualities of natural light and color, spatial cues all but dissolve; above and below, near and far, water and sky all commingle. In his enveloping, large-scale canvases Monet sought to create “the refuge of a peaceful meditation in the center of a flowering aquarium.”
Gallery label from 2006.
In this triptych Monet depicted his Japanese-style pond covered with water lilies, at center, shimmering with reflections of clouds overhead. The water's surface fills the expansive composition so that conventional clues to the artist's—and the viewer's—vantage point are eliminated. Monet wished for the paintings to encompass the viewer: in his designs for the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris, he specified that the Water Lily canvases be displayed on curved walls.
Gallery label from Monet's Water Lilies, September 13, 2009–April 12, 2010.